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Posts from the ‘South Africa’ Category


Are we tough enough? Reflections on U2’s Ordinary Love

Dan at Redeeming Sound asked me to write something for his blog. So naturally, I decided to write on U2…  They’ve had a new album coming out any minute for years – latest is that it will be sometime this year… but they recorded a song for the soundtrack to the new Mandela movie starring Idris Elba: Ordinary Love Read more »


Wisdom from the Palaver Tree: Kofi Annan’s impossible job cajoling the world

I have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.

But before a few gems, here’s my brief Amazon review (which you may want to find ‘helpful’?!): Read more »


Returning home changed to an unchanging Shire

Sabbaticals bring many benefits. One is obviously time for reflection: on the past, present and future; on what matters; on what has made us who we are. And I can say without hesitation that, for good and sometimes perhaps for ill, our Uganda years made a far greater impact on me than any other four-year period as an adult. Of course, one never realises it at the time. Life goes on, you blithely persevere from one thing to the next, you never stop to think. Read more »


The British Empire was never quite what you thought: John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire

Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.

  • “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
  • “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”

Read more »


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 27 (December 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


Passion, Drive and Provocation: The Arrows’ debut album Make Believe

I’d never heard about The Arrows until I noticed a tiny, one para review of their debut album Make Believe in CT. I don’t think I’ve ever got hooked on an album as the result of reading a CT review before – I actually listen to very little specifically CCM (contemp Christian music). But the review somehow stood out enough to  intrigue. So I had a listen and was immediately won over.

Here is energy, creativity, passion – and most refreshingly, a near total avoidance of Christian musical cliché. This innovative South African duo is made up of Pamela De Menezes (on vocals and keyboards and she also gets song-writing credits) and Christie Desfontaine (on drums). And I detected all kinds of different musical influences – even more than the CT reviewer had space to mention. Not only is there techno and electronic dance stuff in there, but cabaret, big band, jazz, gospel, stylish 60s Italian movies and prog rock get thrown into the mix! At moments I could hear the likes of Sade, Seal, Annie Lennox and even the Kings of Leon and the gloriously iconoclastic Neil Hanlon’s The Divine Comedy (which I simply adore despite myself).

This is not of course to disparage by comparison. Far from it. The history of popular music is all about which giant’s shoulders new generations are standing on. But what I just loved more than anything else is that it doesn’t sound all soppy and Christian too often characterised by anodyne lyrics and easy musical resolutions (I know that’s pretty generalised but it’s how I feel about a lot of it). This just sounds like great, well-crafted music. With provocative and challenging lyrics. Which is as it should be.

There is a driving energy behind their questioning faith – the album is about trusting God in the midst of an unpredictable and bewildering fallen world – and that of course resonates strongly with me (as the Quaerentia agenda makes clear). This is a faith that gets angry when it should and yet always stays the right side of trusting. But there are also moments of great tenderness and empathy (like in the title track Make Believe or Ode to a Patient God). I didn’t always agree 100% with the theology: the intro track No Robot’s is an arresting song but rather too influenced by Open Theism for my tastes; and I raised an eyebrow at the thought of human beings existing for only 6000 years in Ode to a Patient God! (Incidentally, those unfamiliar with South Africa probably don’t realise that robots are what South Africans call traffic lights!) But I just loved the passion, sincerity and grappling with big issues of truth and contemporary culture. It’s far better to stab at that than avoid it altogether (again as too much Christian music seems to do). To top it all, their lyrics are almost like poetic assault on the senses, full of challenging ideas and images.

My standouts are:

  • Their passionate plea for people to wake up from their complacency and Chardonnay to see what is really going on in Africa and indeed the world – from mass abortions to carjackings and phone thefts in SA, scary scientific advances like cloning and nuclear technology. The songs that most powerfully convey this are Entropy and World Interrupted.
  • Their articulation of bewildering faith but a determination to cling on – in Walking on Water.
  • An appeal for a non-believing friends at least to give God a second thought – in One for the Brothers.

So check it out – a fantastic album. It’s available on Amazon as an mp3 download.

To give a bit of a flavour, and because their lyrics don’t seem to have been recorded online anywhere yet, I typed up World Interrupted though am pretty sure I didn’t get everything very accurately (I’ve left a couple of blanks where i couldn’t quite get it).

Sorry, please, excuse me.
Has anyone else noticed that the world’s gone crazy?
I mean it’s bad, but it’s a fact,
they’re cloning babies with animals to see what we can get
if we mess with natural law
Oh so super smart, but really who is it for?

So, while they’re cloning and sending rockets into space
Millions of children, well they’ll be trafficked, they’ll be slaves,
and we’ll be sipping our semi-chilled Chardonnay and say
‘Oh it’s such a shame, exactly who are we supposed to blame?’
Well what do we gain if we gain it all,
just more and more, till we lose our soul?

So how much more can the soul can it take,  groaning underneath our selfish ways?
After all, after all, it’s … to say for ourselves
between all the nothing and all of the world
Between all the love, the loss and the stealth
Everyone needs some kind of help

Yesterday the news said, ‘a pregnant man was giving birth’,
and maybe tomorrow there’ll be no oil for us to burn
But for today they say they’re testing nuclear missiles in case
Well just in case, in case of what?
In case all your fighting doesn’t stop?
So while you’re talking, and shaking hands and launching your missiles
Somewhere a rich man is popping pills to stay alive
He just lost everything just in an instant,
in a flash, just crashed, oh the markets screamed,
quick sell the house, hurry, mortgage our dreams
And just down the road a teenage tragedy
And a pregnant brownie brought to you by MTV

So how much more can the soul can it take,  groaning underneath our selfish ways?
After all, after all, it’s … say for ourselves
How much more can this soul take, groaning underneath our selfish ways?
After all, after all it’s … to say for ourselves
Between all the progress and all of the hell,
Between all the slums and all the hotels
Everyone needs some kind of help

Out of the dust surely dawn will arise
out of the ground our hope will ignite
Out of the night the truth will endure
Calling the end until the office appear


Soweto as it really is, not as you think it is

Just been sent the link by the Cape Town gang to these fantastic images of Soweto, taken by the photographer Jodi Bieber to publicise her new book.

Check them out…


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 21 (June 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

  • The Web of Debt: amazing infographic from the New York Times:

Quirky Treasure


Pepsi’s OH AFRICA ad

I’m not normally in the habit of contributing to advertisers viral campaigns – in fact that goes completely against my grain. But I just love this ad for the world cup run up. Captures so many things that I love about Africa:


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 17 (February 2010)

This has ended up being a bit of a bumper one too! Hey ho. Enjoy.

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure


World AIDS day 2009 – statistical realities

I posted about World AIDS Day a year ago (and yesterday got 100s of hits as a result). But I came across this graphic representation of the current stats for 2009, representing %increases and decreases. Chilling. The 5 biggest rises are way off most people’s mental maps… Click on it to be able to interact in more depth.


Some favourite African Musicians

Another list. Just felt the urge I suppose. In no particular order, here are some African musicians whose stuff I can’t get enough of (in no particular order). Not exhaustive, not exclusive, not definitive. Just for a laugh.

Makeba - Mama Africa Ayub Ogada Vusi Mahlasela - Guiding Star

Johnny Clegg Youssou N'dour Abdullah Ibrahim - Cape Town flowers

  • Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) – South African – Mama Africa, lived much of her working life in enforced exile from apartheid era SA. Was, for many, one of the voices of protest outside. Her voice has soul, soul, sweet soul. Somehow evokes a whole generation and era. Nuff said.
  • Ayub Ogada (?- )- Kenyan – was given his epic En Mana Kuoyo some time before we moved to Uganda by bro-in-law Jez – but it is now firmly embedded in my mind as the soundtrack of Kampala evenings. Mellow and yet completely compelling, this is trad Luo music given a western mix. Just wonderful. You’ll recognise some of it if you’ve seen the film The Constant Gardener.
  • Vusi Mahlasela (1965- ) – South African – has a unique and extraordinary voice and is wonderful guitarist in South African folk style. His voice just has it all – pierces the heart and captures the agony, fury, life, hope, joy and reality of Africa. Just listen to Song for Thandi, or the raw Africa is Dying; or more positive, Everytime. Also, check out his cover (with Josh Groban) of Weeping, and of U2’s Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own.
  • Johnny Clegg (1953- ) – South African & Zimbabwean (originally English, born in Rochdale bizarrely enough, but moved to Africa as a child) – he is known as the White Zulu, and formed the first racially mixed South African band in the late 70s. Often sings in Zulu, English and even French. Some great stuff – esp the popular Asimbonanga, and one of my favourites The Crossing.
  • Youssou N’Dour (1959- ) – Senegalese – draws on all kinds of different musical heritages, but clearly rooted in trad Senegal folk music (called mbalax). Hugely popular globally, and justly so… He played key abolitionist Olaudah Equiano in the 2006 film Amazing Grace. Sometimes, his voice sometimes evokes Imam’s call to prayer, piercing and resounding above the band. Many will know his duet with Neneh Cherry, 7 Seconds – but check out Chimes of Freedom or the joy of Set and you’re transported to an African minibus taxi.
  • Abdullah Ibrahim (1935- ) – South African – a jazz pianist, originally called Adolph Johannes Brand. Does big band stuff, and close-up stuff, all in all, a great and unique sound. As a random pick, I just love his District Six, evoking apartheid’s infamous clearing of Cape Town’s most vibrant community (see previous post) or the exuberance of African Marketplace.

Honourable Mentions: Soweto String Quartet (aka SSQ – exactly what it says on the tin, a string quartet formed by 3 brothers and a mate from Soweto – doing classical-pop-african crossover stuff) and Oumou Sangare (from Mali).

I’ve had the joy of seeing 4 out of these 8 acts live – true joy. But all of these folks have stuff on SPOTIFY (which you must use if you don’t already) – so check them out.


Q’s AFRICA week: 4. Fun signs and sights

Here is something a little more light-hearted. I’ve uploaded to my Flickr page a number of classic signs and sights that I’ve spotted on my african travels. Some I’ve shown before (mainly from Uganda), but I’ve added a few from the South Africa trip. Check them out the whole set after this little excerpt:






Q’s AFRICA week: 3. The Tragedy of District 6

We wanted to give the children a sense of what has happened in South Africa. And so after failing to get to Robben Island (because it was booked up until after the New Year), we plumped for the District 6 Museum. And I’m really glad we went there. It had a profound affect on all of us.

Visit the official District 6 Museum website here. But it’s an extraordinary place so, of course, a virtual visit doesn’t convey the power of this building: a converted church in the heart of what was an incredibly rich, vibrant, and above all multi-racial community right in the heart of Cape Town. Consequently, District 6 was anathema to the apartheid ethos of separation, and therefore had to go. Under the infamous 1950 Group Areas Act, the place was razed, cleared and recreated as a whites only area, the job being only completed as recently as 1984. I can remember 1984 well – it’s not that long ago.

This museum is a testimony and a memorial to those who suffered under such irrational and cruel injustice. It is heartbreaking to look up close at the huge floor map of the district, now on the main museum floor. And all over it, former residents have written in by hand where they used to live, where they had their hair cut, where they went to church etc etc (see below).

Amenities for Whites Only...

Particularly powerful is this poem, presented as one of the first things you see on entry. I’ve transcribed it here:

Remember Dimbaza.
Remember Botshabelo/Onverwacht,
South End, East Bank
Sophiatown, Makuleke, Cato Manor.
Remember District Six.
Remember the racism
which took away our homes
and our livelihood
and which sought
to steal away our humanity.
Remember also our will to live,
to hold fast to that
which marks us as human beings:
our generosity, our love of justice
and our care for each other.
Remember Tramway Road,
Modderdam, Simonstown

In remembering we do not want
to recreate District Six
but to work with its memory:
of hurts inflicted and received
of loss, achievements and of shames.
We wish to remember
so that we can all ,
together and by ourselves,
rebuild a city
which belongs to all of us,
in which all of us can live,
not as races but as people.

The lurking question after seeing this is how would we have felt if it had happened to us. I asked one of the children, and he saw the point – “I would have wanted to kill the people who did this”. But this is one of the enduring miracles of South Africa despite all its profound problems and challenges. It did not become a bloodbath of retribution – instead there was magnanimity, as evoked up by the second verse of this poem. As powerful reflection of gospel forgiveness as any from recent history…


But of course, this sort of thing is not ancient history. It is not even recent history. It is in fact CURRENT AFFAIRS. Look at this image from Zimbabwe and a town called Murambatsvina, near Harare:


Q’s AFRICA week: 1. Johnny Clegg & the tale of 2 African presidents

Having just returned from South Africa, my heart was stirred afresh by that great continent of life. So I thought that this week I’d celebrate with our very own QUAERENTIA AFRICA week. The Southeaster will lure us back in time I suspect…


Johnny Clegg has been called the White Zulu. And his is certainly an extraordinary life. Born outside Manchester in the UK, an early childhood in Israel briefly before moving to southern Africa where he has been ever since. And his music reflects all these different influences – singing fluently in English and Zulu, as well as occasionally in French and other South African languages. Having seen a poster for his outdoor gig at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the very day we arrived, we jumped at the chance of getting tickets (having heard him back in the UK summer at Mandela’s 90th concert). We had a right laugh going  – a few pix on our Flickr page here.

Here are 2 of Johnny’s protest songs which seem particularly poignant when placed side by side. The first, written in 1987 years before a multi-racial government seemed possible, is perhaps one of his most well-known in the UK: ASIMBONANGA. It is Zulu, meaning ‘we have not seen him’ and is all about Mandela’s imprisonment across Cape Town’s bay on Robben Island. But watch this clip – and see who appears! From Frankfurt in 1998, at Mandela’s 80th.

This one is more recent. Recorded in Jo’burg in 2006, this song is about another African president who was heralded at the start in terms not unlike those used of Mandela 10 years later. But how differently the tyrant of Zimbabwe is now regarded. This is: THE REVOLUTION WILL EAT ITS CHILDREN (ANTHEM FOR UNCLE BOB).


This is what we do – getting our priorities straight for 2009


Great having a brother-in-law, Jem, who’s in the same line of business. Except unlike Nestle South Africa, we don’t simply offer celestial short-stays – the deal we hold out includes the whole of eternity as part of our package.

A Very Happy New Year to all our readers!


a surfer’s celebration

Well, on cue to celebrate Quaerentia breaking through the 100,000 surfing hits barrier, my son Joshua has achieved a first for our family: a surfer who actually stands up.

We’re in Cape Town for Christmas, staying with Rachel’s sister Lucy and her family – and Josh achieved the not so much impossible as unexpected by this little triumph.


Having crossed this virtual Rubicon, regular readers can look forward to some very exciting things coming to this space in 2009:

  • a brand new look to Quaerentia!!
  • lots more random posts!!
  • the start of an irregular Quaerentia Podcast!!

And this is not to forget U2’s new album – NO LINE ON THE HORIZON – coming out on 2nd March 2009.



Mandela at 90: The world in search of a hero

Well, we were there. Regulars may be thinking that we spend our lives heading off to big rock gigs, but that’s far from the truth. Still, this felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to see Mandela on his last visit to the UK and quite possibly his last major public appearance.

The Gig Itself

The concert was great in its own way – could have done without the Sugababes who didn’t seem to manage to be in tune very much – and the remaining half of Queen seemed a curious choice to close out the night. I also just wish Annie Lennox had sung some of her own stuff as well as her impressive, impassioned speech about HIV/AIDS in Africa – and of course it would have been so much better to have had Bono & The Edge in person rather than on the big screen. But for all that, it was a great night.

And we particularly loved the African musicians – one of the most moving moments was the guy Peter Gabriel came on stage to introduce: Emmanuel Jal (right). He was a child soldier in Sudan – and was rescued by an aide worker called Emma McCune – about whom he wrote a song that he sang. (She was an extraordinary figure, an English girl from a private school background who controversially ended up marrying the Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar and then was killed in a car crash in Nairobi. All the subject of a fascinating book called Emma’s War.)

There was also a showing from East Africa – Kenyan Suzanna Owiyo and Ugandan BBCool who were both great in their very different ways. Johnny Clegg brought back childhood memories for Rachel and did a great duet with the legendary Joan Baez (although both seemed to battle against technology to be heard). The other South African appearances were great too – especially The Soweto Gospel Choir who backed nearly everyone. Eddy Grant did the old protestors’ favourite of Gimme me hope, Jo’anna. I could go on. But the big highlight was the duet of South African Vusi Mahlasela and American crooner Josh Groban singing Weeping (below).

For those who don’t know it, the song Weeping has a powerful story. Written by Dan Heymann while he was a soldier drafted into the South African apartheid regime army, it poignantly conveys the absurdities and horrors of apartheid in ways that only music can. Mahlasela and Groban have recorded it together with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and you can/should get it from iTunes here – as have the Soweto String Quartet (whose recording was the first i’d heard). Both arrangements brilliantly weave the new South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (=God Bless Africa in Xhosa) into the background.

The Man Himself

But of course the centrepiece was the 90 year old man himself. And he looked frail, unsteady and uncertain, perhaps a little deaf, perhaps short-sighted. Countless performers went on about how good he looked for 90 and that is certainly true. But it was poignant to see Graca Machel gently steer him to the podium and then tell him when to wave, and then in classic African idiom, whisper to him at the end (but caught on the PA) ‘we’re moving now, papa’. It is not without reason that he is commonly regarded now as the world’s favourite grandfather.

And yet, when for those brief moments that he spoke, Hyde Park was silenced. It was crystal clarity, and that voice, so unmistakably Mandela’s, rang out – and the moral authority of a man who has suffered, forgiven and led a nation into peaceful transition, transfixed his audience once again. It was unforgettable – and he is surely right about HIV/AIDS – it is not so much a disease as a human rights issue (especially when there are so many competing interests in the western pharmaceutical industry as well as endemic corruption in African health institutions).

So Mandela is my hero. He is certainly unique – and his impact on the modern world is unmatched. It felt right and proper to honour him.

But there are limits, with which I feel sure he would agree. And when compere June Sarpong got carried away by the moment (or at least I hope that that was the reason) and suddenly described him as ‘the greatest human being who had ever lived’ I balked, and so did a teenage boy standing just behind us. When this lad muttered ‘but what about Jesus?’ I could only agree. The thought was picked up by the Daily Telegraph review the next morning which noted:

20 years after massed superstars gathered at Wembley to demand his release from Robben Island jail, Mandela has evolved into a quasi-Christ figure.

Of course it was a gift for me – because I was preaching on Jesus being the Son of Man who forgives 2 evenings later – and had already decided to take the theme of our contemporary yearning for superheroes. And while Mandela has showed remarkable Christlike qualities, neither he (nor his honoured memory post-mortem) will ever be able to deliver on what we demand from our heroes. For idols never come up with the goods in the end. They simply can’t. And I feel sure that Mandela doesn’t believe any of the hype about himself, and nor do his family. For the they know of what he is made, despite his undeniably great and awesome qualities – and they are merely exploiting (legitimately in my opinion) the currency of his fame and prestige for great good, namely the conquest of HIV/AIDS. Revisionists will appear in decades to come and find all kinds of chinks in his armour, all kinds of skeletons, as they seek to right the excesses of hagiographers. And indeed the better biographies make it clear that he is no saint (Anthony Sampson’s biography is my favourite) but is a human being like the rest of us. Well, no surprises there. And in no sense does this diminish what he has achieved. It should merely prevent us from absurdities and idolatries.

So all in all it was a great night. And we were near enough to get some fantastic photos (which you can see on my Flickr page). My favourite was not actually of the stage at all. The VIPs stand was off to the side, at the top of which was Mandela’s personal ‘booth’. I turned around and took pics of it every now and then, unsure of what would come out or be visible. Imagine my joy the next morning when i sifted through them and found this one. It needed playing around with the exposure a bit and it is not quite in focus. But you can clearly see the great man sharing a joke with our dearly beloved Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. How cool is that?!


Son of Man – A new Jesus or an old Jesus in new clothes?

On Thursday night, Brenda Becket, Rachel & I went to a special screening of the new South African film, SON OF MAN at the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square. Was a bit surreal to be invited (they wanted people from different churches, social action networks and those with African links apparently) but it was fun and an interesting evening. The film was made in 2006 and has won various prizes including a major nod at the 2006 Sundance festival – the aim is to generate a buzz for it in the UK. It is produced by the same people who created THE MYSTERIES – the group is called Dimpho Di Kopane from Cape Town (the name means company of talents and is made up of all kinds of different people from South African am-dram and singing groups, talent spotted by the British director Mark Dornford-May & his South African Wife Pauline Malefane, and Conductor Charles Hazlewood). Despite being created for the stage, I remember watching the DVD of the Mysteries while we were in Uganda and being completely blown away. Such a simple concept (which so often is the heart of genius, is it not?) whereby the medieval York Mystery plays are transported to contemporary South Africa with its 9 official languages and huge musical diversity. There are many great things about it and it has rightly been a triumph around the world.

So SON OF MAN seeks to take things the next stage with an equally simple premise. Take the life of Jesus and transpose it to the Cape Flats townships in Cape Town. This is nothing if not provocative – but of course is not the first time someone has done something like this (eg Jesus of Montreal). The bit issue is how one handles that. Now there are some fascinating things about the film – it recreates Judea as a fictitious country in ‘Afrika’, where there are constant political tensions and invasion. Sadly these political realities are tragically familiar to an African setting – but they also bring to life a sense of the turmoil and confusion caused by the different vested interests at work in 1st Century Palestine. And that is representative of one of the big strengths of the film – it obliterates any of the beautification of the Jesus story created by Old Master paintings. The shed where the baby is born is just that – a shed, full of old tyres and the other detritus of modern life. Herod is more like an African rebel commander whose face is printed everywhere. His militia are just thugs: unpredictable, intimidating, lethal. This is particularly powerful in the telling of the massacre of the innocents sequence. The insecurities of Jesus’ family are palpable in the world of warlords and refugees.

There are other nice little touches – the angels and shepherds are played by children – echoing the value that Jesus gives children. And the scene where the angels throng round the risen Jesus is exhilarating (see left). The music is wonderful – much of adapted from the music of the Mysteries stage play. Mary (played by Pauline Malefane) is a very poignant character, full of unspoken grief and pain. Satan is a constant malevolent presence – from the temptation in the wilderness which opens the film, then backtracking to Jesus’ birth all the way up to the crucifixion – he is superbly played by the red & black clad Andries Mbali (see below). It was fun to see that the Centurion present at Jesus’ execution is called ‘Hundred’, a suitably gangsterish name! Some adaptations were very clever but I’m not quite sure how appropriate they are because they miss the point somewhat – so Jesus’ baptism is now seen as part of a Xhosa man’s coming of age ceremony with the wilderness temptation rather like an Aboriginal walkabout. Clever – but more a ritual with sociological and personal significance than it is spiritual. It is not now something one chooses to do but is compulsory for all men of the tribe. The crucifixion now becomes a totem post-execution whereby Jesus’ followers dig up the body from his unmarked grave and hang it high to bring his death to everyone’s attention.

And this is where the problems do begin somewhat. For what actually is the film seeking to communicate? This film powerfully exposes the nightmare of war-torn and riven Africa (and while things are not quite as extreme as this in South Africa, they certainly are in places like Somalia and Liberia). It exposes the injustices caused by evil and sin, not just within Africa but on Africa by the west. So there is such a thing as evil. But as soon as this Jesus starts preaching, he speaks of the ‘inherent goodness of humanity’ and his message is one of peaceful revolution. The sermon on the mount then becomes more of a rally on a soapbox. Andile Kosi who plays Jesus is a wonderful actor, who exudes humanity and compassion – it is impossible not to warm to him or be drawn to him. So in that sense he is well-cast. But this is the problem with so many (if not every) portrayal of Jesus: you have to pick and choose what to play because it is impossible to encapsulate the Incarnation in a performance, impossible even for a redeemed sinner to portray the divine-man.

The Son of Man’s Jesus then is more like Gandhi with an OT prophet’s passion for justice and society. That this is a message that Africa, let alone the rest of the world, DESPERATELY needs to hear is not in doubt. That this is a profoundly Christian message should not be in doubt either. But that this was the totality of Jesus’ message is clearly false. For Jesus addressed the root causes of injustice much more than he tackled oppression – not because the latter was unimportant (far from it), but because it is impossible to deal with the latter without facing the former. Human sin against God leads inevitably to human inhumanity to fellow human. While we ARE created in the image of God with all the wonders and joys entailed by that, it is not enough to leave it there. To do so is actually to endorse the status quo of a fallen world. Then perhaps the biggest problem with the film is the death of Jesus – how can it not be a failure of a successful political martyr (if I can put it like that). Is that all it achieved? In the film it can only be a stimulus for political change. God, while mentioned a few times, is only a bit player in the story – and not the subject of the story, not the one who is at work bringing about his purposes. Of course, his angels are there – more to protect Jesus from Satan until the right moment (which is good) – but Satan certainly has a greater presence. It is hard not to conclude that in some ways he has won by the end of the film. Because whether intentionally or not, the resurrection of JEsus is only witnessed by the hoard of angels and us the audience. None of the dramatic characters get a chance to see what we see.

And that’s why in the end i think that the film does not do justice to the Christian message. Perhaps that is because no cinematic life of Christ can (and maybe that is why cinema should steer clear altogether – but of course that will never happen because whatever society makes of Jesus, he is still unavoidably fascinating). For there is a sense in which Jesus is both attractive to those from every walk of life but at the same time hugely difficult and challenging. NO ONE can be comfortable in his presence, however much they want to be there (as the disciples so often discovered). That means that the campaigners for social justice may well champion the SON OF MAN Jesus – but even they will find things they won’t like about the real Jesus – just as those who exploit and oppress the poor will.

But as long as we understand that there is so much more to Jesus that can ever meet the eye on screen, I think there are things to gain from this film. NT Life was gritty and grimy not cosmetically enhanced. The gospel is supremely relevant in Africa – and it is wonderfully refreshing to have to face a BLACK Jesus – a corrective that is only healthy if we remember that Jesus TRANSCENDS culture as well as inhabits culture – he was of course a 1st Century Jewish male (the scandal of his particularity) but he is also the one, true, universal, human being (and therefore, neither white, black nor anything else). The film is beautifully directed and put together, with strong acting from people who are not professional film-stars, backed by an evocative soundtrack, and full of nice creative touches. If it gets people thinking, then great. If it spurs people to reread the gospels, even better.

  • For Jesus’ followers, I hope that means they will revisit his radical and subversive ethics which challenge so many of the assumptions of the modern era;
  • But for non-followers, I hope that above all his radical analysis of the human heart will drive them to the cross where the madness of the divine solution to sin is uniquely to be found. And it is far more radical than political revolution ever could be.